Missing the wood for the trees

Every ‘scandal’ is grist to the electoral mill for politicians, and Gonzi knows this perhaps more than any other politician.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

George Farrugia’s interview with The Malta Independent did not break any new ground in the ongoing investigations into the oil scandal which surfaced in January 2013. But it does shed light on what the confirmed corruptor of Malta’s fuel procurement process thinks he deserves after justice is made with those he gave up to the police, whether they were decision-makers in the scandal, or merely public officials on his own Christmas gift list. 

What emerges from Farrugia’s own version of events is a singularly mercenary approach to the Presidential pardon given to him in return for his testimony. He casually admits that he viewed this as a way of not only saving his own skin, but also seeing to it that anyone else who can incriminate him will wind up in jail. 

But this was already evident, and the interview adds nothing new to the equation. Perhaps it tells us more about the newspaper’s agenda in pursuing such a spineless line of questioning with a man whose acceptance of a Presidential pardon underlines his declared guilt in devising a system of bribes that lined the pockets of the Enemalta officials he now incriminates.

To have George Farrugia before you as an interviewee, only to allow him a platform to deflect all questions about his pardon, or about his own role in the scandal; to have him merely say that he wants to see his brothers behind bars – (note: it was his brothers who took Farrugia to court on a civil case over his siphoning of profits from oil sales, and who deposited evidence of this corruption in a court case they lodged against him… evidence that was later passed on to the Security Service officer detailed with Lawrence Gonzi) – and not to quiz him on how he evaded arrest even after his actions had been brought to the attention of the authorities in 2008… This was a golden opportunity thrown down the drain: a classic case of missing the wood for the trees. 

No questions were asked on his secret company Aikon, his bank accounts at New York’s Wachovia bank and Geneva’s Banque Privée Edmond de Rotschild; why his brothers took him to court, the out-of-court settlement he paid, how he ran Aikon and why he hid behind fiduciaries Intershore, and what he knew about the oil bunkering business that Tancred Tabone and Frank Sammut secretly manipulated.

On the contrary, the interview invites us to accept that Farrugia was somewhat ‘forced’ into offering kickbacks, as part of a culture over which he had no control. This is taking things too far. Few can doubt that this culture exists, but its traffic is two-way. Farrugia was willing to create the conditions for greasing those officials or public figures he depended on for leverage. He fed off a culture that relied completely on kickbacks, and thrived on this understanding with the people who orbited around him. He was at the centre of all that was rotten in the situation, not the other way round. He was to the corruption what the sun is to earth: he fed it.

He will also be the one protagonist not to be incriminated, thanks to a Presidential pardon whose hasty award may perhaps indicate determination to get to the bottom of the fuel procurement scandal; but it may also have served a political purpose.

The latter is up to former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi to expand upon. Gonzi has proved a hostile witness before the public accounts committee: eager to suggest that his own actions are beyond reproach, while claiming that the timing of a whistleblower – who brought forward a crucial piece of evidence of bribery – was “political” (read, electorally inconvenient to the incumbent administration).

Every ‘scandal’ is grist to the electoral mill for politicians, and Gonzi knows this perhaps more than any other politician. But politicians who pledge that tired slogan of ‘zero tolerance to corruption’, should also spare the public their recriminations about the politics of revealing corruption. Either we subscribe to a culture that reveals corruption at all costs: or we do not participate in a clean democracy at all. There are no grey areas, and Dr Gonzi does his legacy no favours with such statements.

He also misleads a general public that is expecting results on the oil scandal. The public expects police investigators to file sensible charges against the people who were bribed and influenced the decision-making process: not just at Enemalta, but also at other government authorities and entities. It expects that these people are given their day in court like anyone else – bar George Farrugia of course, who now joins a small list of pardoned malfeasants.

Gonzi misleads also because, by turning the oil scandal into a political act of vengeance, he sidelines the importance of George Farrugia as the person who devised this system of bribes. And he does this with a clear purpose: solely to bring in the zero-sum game of Maltese politics into the equation, which inevitably skews popular perceptions along partisan lines. 

Nothing is sacred, it seems. Not even the fight against corruption. The most hallowed endeavour has to be stained by a political agenda.

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